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Why America’s Allies Should Develop Nuclear Weapons

09 Aug 2018

Doug Bandow

Germans are losing their trust in America’s security guarantees.
Believing that U.S. troops would always defend Europe, Berlin has
allowed its military outlays and capabilities to wither. German
defense spending at present barely breaks 1 percent of GDP. With
only slight overstatement, political scientist Christian Hacke
recently said of the German military, “nothing flies, nothing
floats, and nothing runs.”

For years, Washington officials have whined about Europe’s and
especially Germany’s failure to take defense seriously. Yet the
U.S. also continued to spend money and deploy troops to “reassure”
its allies, giving them less incentive to do more.

Despite his tough rhetoric, in practice, President Donald
Trump’s policy has proven to be more of the same. He criticized
America’s defense commitments to Montenegro, yet allowed it to
enter NATO. At the latest alliance summit, his subordinates
advanced new subsidies for member states. This year the
administration is putting another $6.5 billion into the European
Deterrence Initiative, formerly called the European Reassurance
Initiative.

Nevertheless, the president’s crude hostility and
unpredictability have set him apart from his predecessors. Thus,
many Germans and other Europeans worry that he might walk away from
NATO.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has been particularly vocal.
Last year she defiantly responded to President Trump’s criticism by
calling on Europeans to “take our fate into our own hands.” She
remains committed to bumping her country’s military outlays up to 2
percent of GDP, despite opposition from her coalition partners.

Proliferation is a good
thing if it means relieving some of America’s numerous security
guarantees.

Other Germans want to do even more. For instance, shortly after
Trump’s election, Roderich Kiesewetter, a member of the Bundestag
and former German general staff officer, suggested creating a
European military budget to expand the French and British nuclear
arsenals. Berthold Kohler, publisher of the influential
Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, urged direct German
support.

Two weeks ago, the Welt am Sonntag ran an article by
Christian Hacke that argued Germany was no longer under America’s
nuclear umbrella and that “national defense on the basis of a
nuclear deterrent must be given priority in light of new
transatlantic uncertainties and potential confrontations.”
Criticism of his idea was fierce — a former intelligence
official denounced it as “reckless, foolish, and incendiary.”

U.S. commentators also dumped on Hacke’s proposal. Jim Townsend,
a one-time deputy defense secretary, argued: “Trump
notwithstanding, the U.S. nuclear guarantee is not going anywhere.”
That, of course, is the conventional wisdom inside the Blob, as the
Washington foreign policy establishment has been called, which also
believes that America must forever defend Europe, Asia, and the
Middle East; fix failed societies and sort out foreign civil wars
everywhere; and underwrite every authoritarian regime that claims
to oppose Washington’s enemy du jour.

But it isn’t just the Germans who are considering nuclear
options. Jarsolaw Kaczynski, former Polish prime minister and
dominant figure in Poland’s current government, has suggested
developing a European nuclear arsenal to confront Russia.

The same question also has arisen in Asia. The Republic of Korea
embarked on a nuclear program in the 1970s after President Park
Chung-hee doubted the Nixon administration’s commitment to the
ROK’s defense. Seoul later abandoned the effort under U.S.
pressure, though in recent years the North’s nuclear advances have
fed popular support for a South Korean bomb. A poll found two
thirds of South Koreans in favor and some newspapers and
politicians offered their support.

North Korea’s new pacific course has reduced the perceived
necessity of a nuclear arsenal and leftish President Moon Jae-in
last fall declared, “We will not develop or possess nuclear
weapons.” However, the future remains uncertain. Indeed, few Korea
analysts believe Pyongyang will ever fully disarm, and President
Trump has shown disdain for America’s defense commitment to South
Korea.

Even more controversial is the case of Japan. The idea of
possessing nuclear weapons remains anathema to much of the Japanese
population, but they also remain sheltered beneath America’s
nuclear umbrella. Despite Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s attempt to
tie himself to President Trump, an increasingly burdened America
may tire of protecting its wealthiest ally.

So far the proliferation door is “ajar, even if no one is
leading the way through it,” observed Llewelyn Hughes of GR Japan.
The idea of a Japanese nuke was studied (and rejected) by military
and civilian policymakers as far back as the 1960s. During the
conservative nationalist Abe’s earlier stint as prime minister a
decade ago, he appeared to offer indirect support for a Japanese
nuclear weapon, though nothing came of that gambit. In April 2016,
Abe observed that the Japanese Constitution does not preclude the
country from possessing and using nuclear bombs, which reaffirmed a
position going back to Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi in 1957. The
same reasoning allows Tokyo to field a “Self-Defense Force” despite
the constitution’s Article Nine, which holds that “land, sea, and
air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be
maintained.”

Most U.S. policymakers dismiss the idea of friendly
proliferation in Asia, though analyst Ira Straus has proposed a
nuclear loan by Washington to Japan and the ROK. Ultimately,
however, there is no reason for the U.S. to remain entangled in
those nations’ defense. Both are nuclear capable and could develop
their own weapons if they desired. America should consider shifting
— permanently, not temporarily — nuclear as well as
conventional defense responsibilities onto its freeloading
allies.

Uncle Sam has been profligate with his nuclear umbrellas. The 28
other NATO members — including Montenegro, President Trump’s
bête noire — each received one. So did Japan and South Korea.
Australia and Taiwan could also be seen as protected. Certainly
Israel would be had it not developed its own arsenal. Perhaps Saudi
Arabia would get one if Iran developed a bomb. Ukraine probably
thought it had one after yielding its leftover Soviet nukes.

The presumption is that America’s commitments are costless since
they will never be called in. Washington deters the bad guys while
preventing the spread of nuclear weapons. Whatever risk might
exist, believes the Blob, it’s vastly exceeded by the dangers of
proliferation. Under such assumptions, no wonder non-proliferation
is one of foreign policy’s great sacred cows.

The problem with our promises to use nukes on behalf of other
nations is that doing so costs nothing only so long as deterrence
holds. And history is full of conflicts in which conventional
alliances failed to prevent war. World Wars I and II are prime
examples.

A nuclear guarantee that failed at deterrence would force either
military action likely to result in destruction on the American
homeland or humiliating retreat and a consequent loss of
credibility and honor. What U.S. cities should be held hostage for
Berlin, Taipei, Podgorica, Tokyo, Warsaw, and Canberra? Only an
interest most compelling could justify taking such a risk. Yet
Washington has opened its nuclear umbrellas casually, even
thoughtlessly, without much regard for the consequences.

In fact, most of America’s nuclear guarantees are leftovers,
tied to antiquated alliances created during a different time. But
for those commitments, the U.S. would not be a nuclear target of so
many opposing regimes. Through its alliances, Washington has
needlessly turned itself into an adversary of nuclear-armed
powers.

Hence last year’s bizarre nuclear scare involving North Korea.
No serious analyst believed the DPRK planned to start a nuclear war
with America. Nothing suggested that any one of the three Kims who
ruled the North were suicidal. Yet in the event of a conventional
war, Pyongyang could still be tempted to either strike out in
desperation or threaten attacks on civilian targets to halt an
allied advance. With South Korea well able to defend itself,
Washington is risking nuclear attack for no good reason.

The dangers are exacerbated by the potential impact of nuclear
guarantees on allied behavior, which can encourage intransigence
and even recklessness. Conventional commitments are dangerous
enough. In the early 2000s, Taiwan’s independence-minded Chen
Shui-bian government appeared to provoke Beijing in the belief that
the U.S. would deal with any consequences. In 2008, Georgia’s
Mikheil Saakashvili triggered a disastrous conflict with Russia,
bombarding Moscow’s troops in the breakaway territory of South
Ossetia, apparently expecting Washington to enter any war on his
government’s side.

While friendly proliferation could create instability and
encourage competing arms build-ups, it would also be the most
effective way to constrain China without forcing the U.S. into a
military confrontation over primarily allied interests with what
will be soon a great power, perhaps eventually even a superpower.
Enabling more nuclear states would be unfortunate, but it still
might be the best among bad options.

If nothing else, Americans should debate Washington’s multiple
nuclear guarantees. Recipient nations increasingly recognize that
the nuclear umbrella offers an imperfect defense at best. And the
U.S. government’s nuclear commitments create enormous,
disproportionate costs and risks for Americans. When the issue is
nuclear war, without question America must come first.

Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute. A former special assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is author of Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire.

Click here to view the full article which appeared in CATO Journal